There are many people out there who profess to prefer NCAA basketball to its NBA counterpart. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is not one of them, and he’s absolutely right. Because the dirty little secret of March Madness is that the actual basketball being played on the court is often painful to watch — and a style of play that doesn’t reflect how the game is represented at the highest level.
“It’s horrible. It’s ridiculous,” Cuban told reporters. “It’s worse than high school. You’ve got 20 to 25 seconds of passing on the perimeter and then somebody goes and tries to make a play and do something stupid.” The owner, who purchased the team in the middle of the 1999-2000 season, also described the average college play as “[T]hree kids passing on the perimeter. With 10 seconds on the shot clock, they try to make something happen and two other kids stand around.”
This disconnect extends to the defensive end, too. Because college hoops allows for the zone defense (illegal in the NBA), players are often allowed to cheat on D in a way that they simply can’t in the professional leagues. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is infamous for over-inflating the defensive abilities of their bigs, for example, as recent fringe-NBA talents like Fab Melo can attest. Essentially, the entire NCAA basketball experience is designed to compensate for the fact that the league doesn’t have the luxury of employing 450 of the best basketball players on the planet. This does not lead to a better game in any sense of the word. While Cuban’s interest is pretty transparent here — every owner of every NBA team wants prospects to be better equipped to play at the highest level so that they can contribute more to the product that is the NBA — his utter correctness is striking. Why do people like NCAA basketball so much, anyway?
First and foremost, there’s the matter of alma mater pride and identity. This is the single most inarguable aspect of the appeal of college sports, and the big leagues have the same thing going for them, too. It’s regionalism, it’s the reason you probably root for the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Milwaukee Bucks — because you live there. Because there’s some sort of area code connection. In fact, the NCAA’s version of this is stronger — you were a student or an employee or a relative of one of the two, and so were the guys out on the floor (to say nothing of the complicated “are they employees or aren’t they” discussion surrounding college sports). You ate at the same cafeteria, wandered aimlessly around the same quad, and got stuck paying way too much for that one textbook that the bookstore didn’t have any used copies of.
That’s awesome. You know what else would be awesome, particularly if you’re into watching people struggle? Eliminate the dribble handoff from college basketball. Over the course of the NCAA tournament, roughly 65 million dribble handoffs are made, with approximately 64.5 million of them leading to exactly nothing beyond a cursory pass, another dribble hand off, and then a tentative shot that, more often than not, will be a miss. Another thing that’s got to go — and there’s no argument here, from anyone — is the 35-second shot clock. Offensive possessions take forever in the NCAA, and not in the “back in my day, everyone read books… now no one has any attention span” kind of way. No, we’re talking to the distinctly uncomfortable feeling of excessive tedium that drains any immediacy out of any given possession at the college level.
Or, as Cuban would say, “It’s uglier than ugly.” And, indeed, “[w]hen the NBA went through that, we changed things.” If you remember the NBA of the late ’90s and early 2000s, when Cubes took over ownership, you remember a lot of one-on-five basketball, with isolation being the order of the day.